By accident, I kicked a beer can. During an after-dark walk, dog by my side, my right foot grazed a beer can at the edge of the sidewalk. Clattering, out of it spilled beer, old and stale – the smell lifting even in the wet January air.
Years ago, late night, we would drive behind liquor stores, convenience stores, bars. My father, in boots and old dungarees, would jump into dumpsters and hand out aluminum cans my brother and I, ten and thirteen, nine and twelve, eleven and fourteen, would grab and drop into bags. Two and three garbage bags on a Friday or Saturday night would come home in the back of our van, a Ford Econoline, rigged by my father during the gas shortage so he could flip a switch and make the tank read empty. The next day my mother, father, brother and I would walk the shoulders of the main roads picking up cans, each of us with a bag. I would grab them by the bottom, hold them far from me and shake them to encourage the escape of the roaches within before dropping the cans in my bag. Then, back home, dumped onto the driveway, we would empty the bags, crush the cans and put them back into the bags. Always the smell of stale beer.
Every few weeks, we would fill the back of the van with bags of aluminum cans and bring them to the recycling center. They would be weighed and we would be handed cash. Nine cents a pound. Thirteen cents a pound. The value would change depending on the market, but we never worried about that. We just collected, crushed, delivered and took home the cash. It took many bags to make a buck.
And we would plan. Estimating the cash from cans, we would figure how far we could travel on our vacation. Each august we would drive, in the van with the shorted out, always reading empty gas gauge, to Tennessee or North Carolina or Arkansas, pulling behind us a pop-up camper. We would camp in the valley, by the river, on a mountain top and mine for emeralds, pan for gold, dig for rubies, search for diamonds.
And we would find them, take them home, cut them, polish them. Some we’d sell. Some we’d give away. Some we’d keep.
One night, on top of a mountain in North Carolina, it rained. It rained hard. It pelted into the rocky river next to us, hit the canvas roof of the pop-up above us, pinged the aluminum of the camper encasing us. We were surrounded by rhythm and wet. The air smelled of freshness and clay and pine. With every rain, it still does.
Such things come of accidents.